MC team slingshots past class record

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 1, 2013 

— Flinging a basketball as far as possible might not sound like an easy task.

But students from a Merced College physics class rose to the challenge Wednesday using a hand-built trebuchet -- a medieval war machine with a sling.

About 70 students, divided into teams, unveiled their machines and began their quest for a successful basketball launch -- and a passing grade.

"They have to get the ball past 15 meters (49 feet) to get an A," said physics professor Lana Jordan.

For the past 15 years, Jordan has used the competition as an exam for her students. In that time, she's seen a lot of students vying to break the all-time record for the farthest throw: 74.5 meters.

One student broke that record Tuesday, launching his basketball 75 meters with a machine that took 12 hours to build.

Mechanical engineering student Derek Hollenbeck, 24, credited his success to the wheels on his contraption. No one else in Tuesday's competition used wheels.

"I didn't think it would go so far," Hollenbeck said. "We have more weights so we can push it even farther."

Although Hollenbeck broke the record, it didn't stop others from trying.

The six members of Team Omega didn't let a little competition stop them from achieving their goal. After several launches, they hit a record for their machine -- 38.8 meters.

"You can only learn so much from a book or listening to your teacher," said biology major Nicole Alt, 19. "When you're out here applying it, you learn more."

Joseph Newman, 30, from Team Pi agreed. "It makes physics real," he said. "This is something we can touch and feel."

Watching proudly from the sidelines were Newman's grandmother and parents.

"My problem was staying out of the way and letting him build it," said Bill Newman, 62. The five-member team spent four days during spring break building their trebuchet, which made a 33-meter launch Wednesday.

A few feet away, another team stood out by wearing Viking helmets made from duct tape. But they didn't need the costumes to earn a passing grade -- their ball reached 27 meters.

"It's a test grade and we already got an A," said Shasta Doser, 20. She admitted her group waited until the last minute to get started, but pulled together as a team.

"It taught me that my teammates can help," Doser said. "They've been awesome."

Mechanical engineering student Michael Silva competed in last year's contest.

Even though the 22-year-old is getting ready to transfer to California State University, Sacramento, in the fall, he came back to help with the competition. "It's a lot of fun, and you really get to work as a team," he said.

Jordan has been teaching for 37 years, but she said nothing replaces the feeling of pride she gets from watching her students.

"You invest a lot in the students, and you want to see them spread their wings," Jordan said. "Just the pride of them coming out here and making something that works. It's a labor of love."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or

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